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No. 30: “The Fall” (2006)

“There’s no happy ending with me,” stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) tells Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), the inquisitive little girl who sneaks into his hospital room. Truer and more heartbreaking words were never spoken. Wasted by heartbreak and paralyzed by a stunt gone wrong, Roy is sticking around just long enough to commit suicide. Young Alexandria, hospitalized with a broken arm, looks like a suitably gullible accomplice. But then Roy starts to weave an epic tale of vengeance, love and honor, and his own story shifts in ways he did not see coming. The telling changes him, and Alexandria, too.

Such is the beauty of Tarsem Singh’s poetic, wrenching and visually striking “The Fall,” a film that marries unforced yet dynamic performances (Pace and Untaru are splendidly matched) with bold characters and vibrant landscapes. This is a story within a story, and the players in both act in ways we do not anticipate. To create one such story, where the characters surprise and touch us, is quite an accomplishment; to create two in one movie, impossible, yet somehow Singh has done it. By the end, “The Fall” struck me speechless.

Still, a film like “The Fall” deserves a lot of words, so this dumbstruck routine cannot hold. The central story involves the unlikely friendship between Roy and Alexandria. Roy, paralyzed on set by a foolish stunt he cooked up to impress the girlfriend he lost anyway to the movie’s star, has no desire to live. But he finds Alexandria an amusing distraction. So Roy creates a story for her about five heroes — Luigi (Robin Smith), an explosives expert; an unnamed Indian (Jeetu Verma); Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), an ex-slave; Charles Darwin (Leo Bill); and the masked Blue Bandit (Pace) — all out to kill corrupt Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). The story weaves in and out of Roy and Alexandria’s reality, set in a hospital in 1920s-era Los Angeles.

Later, there is a line that suggests Roy’s intentions aren’t totally pure: “You always stop at the same part, when it is very beautiful,” Alexandria tells him. He has a sneaky reason for this: He holds the full story hostage to convince her to do something he can’t do for himself. But it’s more complex than that. Pace’s eyes here suggest Roy has other reasons. Maybe this broken man wants to remember things that way, when the edges were softer and the emotions kinder. Or perhaps he wants to leave Alexandria with memories of vigor and beauty, not the pain and rage he can’t shake. There is not one single motive, but many, and they all get tangled up in Roy’s larger-than-life tale.

There’s no doubt that the heroic story, with its villains and roiling, chaotic emotions, demands much of the viewer’s attention. Visually, the Blue Bandit’s pursuit of Governor Odious looks awesome, with its electrifying colors, innovative costumes and double casting. A few glorious fight scenes in (note the Bandit/Odious showdown), it’s clear that Tarsem Singh is the kind of visionary Guillermo del Toro should envy. “The Fall” feels every bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Dali painting, with eye-popping colors and images. In fact, the look of the Blue Bandit’s quest seems, at times, enough to overpower the story of Roy and Alexandria.

The reason the visuals don’t win out? Untaru and Pace, who make a strange but electrifying pair. The Romania-born Untaru doesn’t speak much English, but she hardly needs to — she has a natural curiosity that feel completely authentic. She’s innocent, but we get the sense that she might understand the story Roy creates has more to do with his real life than he’ll admit. Her plea for Roy to make her a part of that story, and then to give her some control over its outcome, is devastating. And what of Pace, who’s been creating an impressive resume? Wow. Just … wow. His layered performance as Roy is blistering, with its mix of resignation and increasingly unchecked wrath. He’ll shred your heart, tear it right out and then sneak it back in a little bigger and stronger for the wear. With Pace at the heart and Singh at the helm, “The Fall” is just that kind of powerful moviegoing experience.

10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).